March 18, 2023

Understanding the Exposure Triangle: ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture

By Morkven

The exposure triangle is the fundamental concept of photography that defines the three most important variables that determine the level of light that enters a camera and falls onto the sensor. These parameters are ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Understanding these elements is crucial to becoming a successful photographer as managing them can create the desired effects in any given situation.

ISO refers to the camera’s sensitivity to light. This measurement comes from the film era when it represented the speed of film. A lower ISO rating means that the camera is less sensitive to light, whereas a higher rating indicates greater sensitivity. This sensitivity comes at a cost–more sensitivity often requires sacrificing image quality. A high ISO can lead to a loss of detail and more noise. So, when shooting in low light, increasing the ISO can seem like the solution, but it is essential to find a balance between sensitivity and image quality.

Shutter speed is the length of time that the camera’s shutter remains open. It determines how much light enters the camera, and it affects the sharpness of photos. A fast shutter speed, like 1/1000 of a second, would capture an object in motion. In contrast, a slow shutter speed, such as 1/60 of a second, would capture motion blur, where objects seem to move in the frame. A slow shutter speed requires the camera to be held steady, either by using a tripod or by hand-holding the camera, keeping the shake to an absolute minimum. This technique is used to create the effect of motion. A fast shutter speed is preferred for capturing action sequences. It’s recommended to shoot in shutter priority mode, which allows you to choose the shutter speed while the camera takes age of the aperture, ensuring the appropriate exposure.

Aperture is the opening of the camera’s lens. This opening widens or narrows to control the amount of light that reaches the sensor. Aperture is measured in f-stops, and the lower the number, the wider the aperture. A wide aperture or low f-stop settings, like f/2.8 or f/1.8, creates a shallow depth of field. It’s perfect for portraits, macro photography, where the subject is isolated from the background, and only the subject in focus, while the background is blurred. For landscapes or architectural images, a smaller aperture or a higher f-stop like f/16 or f/22 is preferred, as it results in a wider depth of field that ensures everything in the picture is in focus.

Altering any of the three components alters the exposure of the picture. But, it’s necessary to maintain the balance between these ingredients to create the perfect exposure. If the shutter speed is too slow or the aperture is too wide, the exposure is too bright, resulting in an overexposed image. On the other hand, if the shutter speed is too fast, images become dark or underexposed. It’s possible to compensate for a low or high light condition by adjusting either the aperture, the shutter speed, or the ISO. But it’s crucial to maintain the balance between the three components. It’s advised to shoot in manual mode to control these elements individually.

The exposure triangle can also be helpful when dealing with effect or creative photography. Here are some examples:

Silky Water: To create non-stop flowing water like waterfalls, you need to use slow shutter speed, for that you need to use a tripod, and set your shutter speed to around 1/8 seconds.

Motion Blur: Set your shutter speed to around 1/60 or slower, pan the camera to track moving objects while taking the shot.

Bokeh: For background blur, set your aperture (f-stop) between f/1.8 or f/2.2 for portraits, and f/2.8 or higher for landscapes, architectural and nature photography.

The exposure triangle is a critical component to the art of photography, and you must understand how each element affects the final outcome while taking the picture. By monitoring and adjusting the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, it’s possible to achieve the intended effect desired by the photographer. So, next time you are taking a shot, keep the exposure triangle in mind and get a perfect shot without compromising the quality of an image.